Last week I had the privilege of visiting London to watch about twenty minutes of Wonder Woman footage. This was a savvy move on Warner Brothers’ part because I am a willing shill easily seduced by free plane rides to fancy places. The hotel bathtub had a TV embedded into the wall. With a waterproof remote control. Wonder Woman will obviously be the best movie ever.
Except that can’t be right because Wonder Woman is a DCEU movie, and not one of those have been any good. Even the mostly mediocre Man of Steel has been retrospectively tainted by the travesty of Batman V Superman. No amount of bathtub televisions can fix that.
Many people claimed Wonder Woman as the easy highlight of Batman V Superman. I actually agree, but only concede that agreement with the understanding that her superiority just illustrates how bad that movie was. She had a little life to her and a cool theme song, which automatically elevated her appearances. But she was also a blank nothing, the avatar of a recognizable superhero. She’s the best part of that movie, but she’d be the worst part of a movie that was actually decent.
The good news is Zack Snyder’s unwillingness to give Wonder Woman any character meant Patty Jenkins had freedom to fill in those blanks without worry for ruining whatever came before. And based on the footage we saw and the conversation we had with her afterward, that’s exactly what she did.
I can’t tell you that Wonder Woman will definitely be a good movie. Its first half hour is super dependent on exposition and flashbacks, and it could easily end up with the kind of lame third act CG throwdown that derails a lot of these movies. But if it is bad, I can guarantee it won’t be due to cynicism, laziness or lack of love for the character. I’ve only seen a fraction of the film, but it was enough that make that assertion confident.
The first scene we saw took place as Wonder Woman leaves her home Themyscira for the first time. Her people have just gotten a taste of what modern warfare looks like, and Wonder Woman believes Ares the God of War must be behind it. It is her sacred duty to bring him down, so off she goes with her handy guide to the modern world, and the first man she’s ever met, Steve Trevor.
Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor is a special guy, modeled after a mixture of Indiana Jones and Rick from Casablanca. A brave and strong fighter in his own right, it was very important to Patty Jenkins that Steve not become a damsel in distress to Wonder Woman but a solid ally and aide: “I had to make him someone I am in love with, who believes in me and supports what’s important to me.”
We see that instantly as Trevor accepts Wonder Woman even though her mere existence goes against everything he thinks he knows. He has important information to deliver, and she only agrees to get him to London if he promises to take her to where the fighting is the most awful, where she is most likely to meet Ares. Once they’re off, she gets impatient when she learns they’re not going directly to the frontline of the war. “We can’t fight the war, but we can talk to the men who can,” he explains. “I am the man who can!” is her response.
This Wonder Woman is a unique character. A warrior but also new to the world, she strikes an interesting mixture of fierce but naive, curious but blunt. It isn’t long before the two, relaxing on a rocking boat under the stars, begin an almost childishly innocent discussion about sex. She has no shame about her questions, and he does his best to answer while remaining a gentleman. The chemistry between them really works, which is good news because Jenkins hangs the entire movie on their relationship. Wonder Woman may be a superpowered Amazon, but she needs Trevor to help her navigate a man’s world. And Trevor needs her to save it.
The next scene we saw takes place as Diana and Trevor arrive in London and head toward a meeting with the War Council. Diana remains frustrated that they’re wasting their time when they should be headed toward where the fight burns hottest. Trevor has his hands full explaining bureaucracy to her while also trying to keep her from showing too much skin as she walks through the mud of London, blissfully unaware of a need for modesty. On a dime, she goes from thirsting for battle to cooing over a newborn baby, the first she’s ever encountered. Just that beat alone strikes me as better and more character-driven than anything seen in the DCEU thus far.
Finally, we got to see one of the film’s big action scenes. Except it wasn’t that, exactly. Jenkins claims she constructed the film’s action with the rhythm of drama, not spectacle, “It’s not about action and fighting; it’s about her.” The scene we saw bears that out.
Wonder Woman, Steve Trevor and their acquired crew (a sharpshooter played by Ewen Bremner, a master of disguise played by Saïd Taghmoui, and a tradesman played by Eugene Brave Rock) approach a stalemated trench at a key battleground position. As they walk, Diana sees thing after thing that bothers her - people whipping horses, a starving child, sick men - each time she tries to help, Steve reminds her of the larger mission.
Until finally, she has enough of not doing the right thing and says “Fuck that” (I’m paraphrasing). Wonder Woman takes off her cloak and charges the opposing trench, batting away bullets and artillery alike. The shocked soldiers take a moment before realizing the line of safety she provides and charge as well, securing an important move forward.
This is illustrative of the Wonder Woman Jenkins wants to get across. She cannot save the whole world, but she can give those who fight a stronger foothold to help themselves. “She can’t be dark and nasty,” Jenkins says. “She is the hero the world’s been waiting for.” In other words, she’s no DCEU Superman, thank goodness.
Patty Jenkins has been wanting to make a Wonder Woman movie for a very long time, but had to wait until culture caught up with her plans for the character. At one point, she was going to direct Thor for Marvel, but had the self-awareness to know her plans and their plans did not align closely enough for her to feel comfortable going forward with the project. She didn’t have that problem with Wonder Woman: “If I don’t feel comfortable, confident I’m the best director for the project, that would be, politically, a big step backward for women directing big studio movies.” The stakes are high for her to get this one right.
Her enthusiasm for Wonder Woman and confidence in the movie overall is pretty clear, however, just as her ambitions are quite large. The keystone movie everyone kept comparing this to is Richard Donner’s Superman. Not just in terms of character and heroism, but also structure. We will spend a lot of time on Themyscira watching her grow up and evolve into the hero she becomes. It's a risky move with audiences so used to speed and bombast in their comic book movies, but if it connects as Donner’s film did, the emotional payoff could be huge.
I can’t say it’s going to work, but after seeing this footage and talking with Jenkins, I’m optimistic. I can say with certainty that what we saw had more character, drama and just sheer likability than anything from the DCEU yet. Jenkins is definitely trying to make a real movie, and I hope she succeeds.